Five Questions With: Bridget Gibbons Director of the Office of Economic Development Westchester County
More than four years ago, Bridget Gibbons left the private sector to join the Latimer Administration’s economic development department. Little did she know that two years into her new job, the county would be facing its biggest health crisis—COVID-19 that required her to work on developing programs and initiatives to help businesses cope with the pandemic.
First as Deputy Director of Economic Development for Westchester County and beginning with her appointment by Westchester County Executive George Latimer in the fall of 2018 as Director of the Office of Economic Development, Gibbons has spearheaded efforts to provide resources and funding to impacted small businesses. She has also been in charge of the county’s day-to-day operations of the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency and its Local Development Corp.
Real Estate In-Depth recently chatted with Gibbons to learn what the county believes are its growth sectors, what it is doing to help companies fill jobs and what major projects are on the horizon in the coming years?
Before joining county government, Gibbons was founder and owner of Gibbons Digital Consultants, a digital marketing agency. The company helped a wide variety of industries in the tri-state area leverage social media as a business development tool, providing a full-range of services from comprehensive, long-term strategy to daily social media management on Facebook and all other platforms.
Her company was recognized by the Advertising Club of Westchester, winning awards for its work with Facebook and e-mail management. In 2014, Gibbons was recognized for her leadership and management skills, and 914 Inc. magazine named her one of Westchester County’s “Best Bosses.” After nine years, her company was acquired by a larger marketing agency in White Plains.
Before launching her digital business, Gibbons spent 15 years as a senior consultant and project manager for Towers Watson, a global human resources and benefits consulting firm, where she managed large, multi-national project teams to implement complex, web-based systems. Her clients included JPMorgan Chase, IBM, Molson Coors and Accenture. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies from American University in Washington DC, and certificates in computer technology from Columbia University and in Social Media from New York University.
Real Estate In-Depth: The Office of Economic Development finalized a new strategic plan in 2020 but its implementation was impacted by the coronavirus in 2021. Can you briefly describe the key facets of the strategic plan and the status of its implementation?
Gibbons: The plan really outlined a sector strategy for the county to have us align our human resources and financial resources to grow four key sectors: biosciences, advanced manufacturing, clean energy and technology. The reason for those sectors is they align very well with our highly-educated workforce. They are resilient and those sectors were not as negatively impacted (from prior economic downturns) as many other sectors like hospitality and others. They are the future. They all have well-paying jobs and growth is expected for all those sectors.
So, in the beginning of 2021 we had to focus on helping our businesses recover (from the COVID-19 pandemic) and we gave out grants to our small businesses to help them recover some of the increased costs and decreases in revenues. At the same time, we did start to build out in these (four growth) sectors in our sector growth strategy. We established a task force in the biosciences that consists of the key stakeholders across the county, start-ups, larger businesses, key business organizations like the Business Council of Westchester and the Westchester County Association. We got the key stakeholders in the biosciences industry to meet on a monthly basis to really understand what the issues are.
The focus of the task force is to determine how we grow the sector. And so, over the course of 2021, we really spent some time uncovering those barriers to growth and we are now in 2022 starting to move and make changes and have projects related to overcoming those barriers. For example, we know that real estate is an issue in Westchester County for bioscience start-ups. The biosciences sector is unique in that they do not have a lot of employees when they are starting-up. So, they have scientists and researchers working for a number of years on a therapeutic, a drug or medical device. So, it takes a long time and therefore they don’t fit into the normal model of businesses that grow at 10 to 15 employees in a given year when they are doing well. So, we have to have the ability to nurture these companies so they stay here in Westchester and don’t go elsewhere. We know there is a need for start-up space and they also have requirements for a laboratory for the most part. So, having lab space for our start-ups that is affordable for the emerging businesses in the biosciences is something we don’t have enough of. We are working with a consultant right now to identify how the county can play a role in fixing this problem. We know New York City 10 years ago got actively involved in using incentives to encourage developers to build more lab space. So, we are looking at all of the options to determine what is the best role for the county to play in that. Real estate is an issue. Incentives are an issue. We know that parts of the metro region, including Connecticut and New Jersey, have incentive programs that really attract and retain these start-ups in the biosciences industry. … The (biosciences) task force identified issues in 2021 and 2022 and we are examining the best solution from a county perspective as to what is the best role to play there.
We also established an Advanced Manufacturing Task Force and that group has been meeting on a monthly basis since the beginning of 2021. This task force also consists of business owners and key business organizations, including Westchester Community College, the WCA and BCW, to find out what the growth issues are for that sector. The big issue that existed prior to the pandemic and the ‘Big Resignation’ was their ability to hire. It is a real challenge for them and we did a quick review of resources to help them hire people and we identified the need for a certificate program to train entry-level workers. These people don’t have to have manufacturing experience, but we would like to have them have some skills so they are an asset immediately to the business owner. So, we established our first class, a certificate program—the Certified Production Technician 4.0—which is a nationally recognized credential. Our first class was about a month ago at WCC and we have a cohort of students going through this class. … They are learning safety, quality assurance and basically how to be careful around equipment and to have good quality practices so that although they are entry level, when they go to the job they have some good common sense skills in their pocket so they can be immediately of value (to the employer). … So, 2021 for us was uncover the issues and 2022 we’re now really implementing programs that are really going to make a difference.
Real Estate In-Depth: Recognizing the shortage of workers in key industries, Westchester County has launched programs and events to attract workers. Among the industries targeted have included Hospitality, Construction and Health Care. Have these initiatives been successful and please list those sectors we missed and industries you plan to target in the future?
Gibbons: As COVID has receded, we have been able to go back to all in-person career fairs. Hiring employees has surfaced as the biggest issue across the board for our employers in Westchester County. Thankfully, the county has the ability to convene so we have been using that power to bring together people in hospitality and construction. We had about 20 employers at the construction job fair and we had over 200 job seekers. One company hired 25 people coming out of that job fair so it was really impactful. People come to the job fairs with their resumes, with their business attire and fill out applications on the spot and it has been really successful. We had a similar event for hospitality. We also had one job fair focused on the health care sector where we partnered with the Westchester County Association where there were lines of people waiting to speak with the health care employers in the county. Coming up on June 2 we have a Job Fair for Advanced Manufacturing and then on June 30 a Job Fair for Transportation. In kind of a new area for us, in the fall we are planning an “Accessible Job Fair,” which will be for people with disabilities. … That’s an area where we are expanding our role because people with disabilities have a high unemployment rate and we see it as a “win-win” if we can help more employers hire people with disabilities. They are great workers. They are very loyal. Obviously, these folks deserve a chance to have a well-paying job and a career. So, we are really looking to make an impact and have some influence in that area.
Real Estate In-Depth: Supply chain disruptions, runaway inflation and higher labor costs are impacting the development community across the nation. Recently, more than 10,000 members of the National Association of Home Builders sent a letter to President Biden where they cited rising costs stemming from historically high price levels for lumber and other building materials, supply chain bottlenecks, surging interest rates, excessive regulations and a persistent lack of construction workers for significantly decreasing housing affordability conditions. Since many projects that come before the Westchester County IDA calculated their project costs prior to the surge in inflation, are you hearing of any projects being delayed?
Gibbons: No is the short answer. They (IDA applicants) are not coming to us and saying, “We’re stopping,” or “We’re delaying,” they are continuing to work on their projects, they just may need an extension in the time period when they can use the benefits. No one has pressed the pause button, but the reality is that some projects, not all, but some projects have come to us and said “We are going to need an extension of the time period within which we can use the IDA benefits.” I have not heard anyone delaying groundbreaking, I just think they may be working around the supply chain bottlenecks.
Real Estate In-Depth: Can you please detail some of the major projects that have been incentivized recently by the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency and Local Development Corp. and what impact Regeneron Pharmaceutical’s planned $1.8-billion expansion of its headquarters property in Greenburgh will have on the area economy?
Gibbons: We (the IDA) recently gave final authorization for what was originally called “Gateway II” but is now called “25 North Lex,” a 500-unit rental apartment building at 25 Lexington Ave. in White Plains right across from the White Plains (Metro North) train station. The project will create 600 construction jobs and 20 full-time jobs once it is completed. So, that is a very important project for us. Of course, the Regeneron (expansion) projects are very, very impactful. It is a $1.8-billion investment between phase one and phase two. Phase one has gotten final authorization from the Westchester County IDA. Phase one (which is under construction) is a portion of the planned investment and is worth $480 million. Phase two has been induced by the IDA and will ultimately get final authorization. So, the total investment is $1.8 billion over six years. Between the two phases Regeneron is planning to add 1,000 employees, which is incredibly impactful from a business growth perspective. We have already had some discussions with Regeneron on how we can work with them to fill those positions because we want Westchester County residents to get those jobs. Part of what we are looking to do to assist with that is really do an inventory of the jobs that are currently available and those that will be created. We want to find out what are the needs, are there training programs and degree programs or certificates that exist now that could be feeders into those jobs? Or do we need to create new training programs in order to fill those jobs? … We are going to work closely with Regeneron on that whole initiative, which helps the bioscience industry in general. To have such a strong and large employer in the county is very attractive. Other biosciences companies want to be around that because they are so impactful. I think other bioscience firms want to be around a successful biosciences company like Regeneron and we do believe it will be a draw. It really puts Westchester County on the map. Regeneron is the largest private employer in Westchester County. Also, Westchester County represents 20% (approximately 8,000 workers) of the state’s life sciences private employment.
The LDC recently approved tax-exempt bond financing for the SUNY Purchase senior living facility. That’s $385 million in tax-exempt bonds. The project is comprised of 220 independent living units, 18 assisted living beds and 16 memory care beds. It is situated right on the SUNY Purchase campus and is integrated in a way so that the seniors living there are a part of the college community so they can take classes, etc. … It’s a very innovative project that has never been done before so we are very happy with this development coming on line.
Real Estate In-Depth: The Westchester County Office of Economic Development accepted applications back in March for the 2022 Westchester County Business FIRST grant program, which was funded by the American Rescue Plan. This year’s grant program will provide up to $17 million to support nonprofits and religious organizations facing challenges as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Do you have updates on the program and some of the grant award winners?
Gibbons: We sent out award letters to 160 non-profits in Westchester. They are all getting grants from us totaling just over $6 million. We are still working on grants for religious organizations. We did get grant requests from approximately 70 religious organizations. We will be reimbursing them for services that they provided to the community at large during COVID. Soup kitchens, vaccination sites, COVID testing locations (are eligible). So, we are working through those applications and hope to make an announcement soon.
The applications for the religious organization grants have closed. We are going to be doing another program in the near future that will likely be focused on New York State-certified or Westchester County registered MWBEs.